At yesterday’s presentation at the QSA Conference I suggested that we should cherish plagiarism, and that over the top concerns about copyright and privacy/cyber bullying are the ugly evil twins trying to stop technology-driven pedagogical transformation. There was pushback from some, and unfortunately we didn’t have time to finish the discussion. So here is why I think plagiarism is fantastic, crucial for learning and should be encouraged and celebrated, and why schools’ obsession with copyright and attributing is so harmful.
My son Ned is seven years old, he doesn’t often write for fun yet last weekend he spent about eight hours writing out a user guide for the computer game he is creating called Moptropica. If you’re familiar with Poptropica you’ve probably realised that many people would consider Ned a plagiariser. The names of the games are almost identical and the similarities don’t end there! Poptropica has islands such as SOS Island, Ghost Train Island, Moptropica also has islands, such as Radio Island, Fire Island and Upside Down Island. On each island in Poptropica you need to collect items to solve problems, in Moptropica you also have to collect items in order to solve problems. Poptropica has a user guide to help you along the way, and so does Moptropica.
It seems that Ned’s Moptropica game is a direct copy of Poptropica but I think that is only a small part of the story.
You see Poptropica is not original, it is classic adventure game, Poptropica didn’t invent the narrative puzzle solving game style but rather copied it, using a tried and tested formula. The islands that set the various locations in Poptropica have also be “taken” from other games, in fact, Scott Adams, the creator of Adventure game after which the genre is named, created a second adventure game, Pirate Adventure that was set on an island. Hundreds of other adventure games have also been set on islands, probably because they are such good places to search for treasure! Except for the name and the fact that Ned loves playing Poptropica, many many other games could more legitimately claim that it is fact stealing from them.
Looking beyond the name and the islands, Ned’s Moptropica is chock full of creativity and individual ideas. On Upside Down Island you get thrown in gaol because you’re not upside down, on Passage Island you use fire to melt the Ice Demons while protecting your eyes with sunglasses and on Cow Island you have to dig holes under the cows which they fall into. While Ned has certainly been inspired by Poptropica’s name and settings (which as we’ve seen aren’t original) the most important bits, the ideas are his. That is certainly not to diminish Poptropica’s role, without Poptropica Ned wouldn’t have been able to create his game, just as without previous adventure games Poptropica would not have been created. Poptropica was the inspiration and the catalyst, it allowed Ned to create something that more creative and more complex than he otherwise could.
Nothing is truly original, everything is built upon someone else’s work. If you don’t believe me go and watch Everything Is A Remix. Ideas and creativity don’t come from thin air, they are built upon other people’s work and ideas. Think of something original you’ve created lately, now look at bits that have been borrowed from others, I bet your original part is less than 1% of the total product. The other 99% is copied, your small piece of originality is only possible because of the other copied 99%.
Creativity and innovation require openness and the relinquishing of ownership. The innovation we have witnessed across the Internet has been built upon openness and a relaxed (and reasonable) view of copyright and ownership. Open source and creative commons have seen innovation flourish because they encourage others to reuse and build upon their work. They realise that claiming ownership of things that are obvious is not only silly but is counter-productive to progress. That building on the work of others not only reduces costs and time that it takes to create a new product but also increases the level of creativity and complexity of the product.
My hope is that schools (and everyone) moves on from a restrictive and erroneous view of ownership and copyright and starts to cherish plagiarism.
Footnote: Trying to give something a name doesn’t mean you own it
I’ve been quietly concerned by a number of educators claiming ownership of ideas that clearly not theirs. You can’t add 1% of new material and then claim you own it. When educators try to do this, they damage the potential of technology and they create artificial barriers to progression. We see patent trolls and the damage they do, lets not see it happen in education. Often these educators think they’ve created a tiny piece of originality, which usually is not only not original but also completely obvious, and then not only do they try to claim ownership of the idea but also retrospectively claim ownership of ideas and concepts beyond their tiny non-original idea.
My hope is that we see less and less of this. Cherish Plagiarism.